Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

Moveable Worlds?

By Loraine Ritchey
Tradition! Tradition! Tradition! TRADITION!! Rages Tevye as he cries against change (Fiddler on the Roof). Another culture, another time but the cry “ Tradition!” rings across the oceans around the world as discussions take place with moving the (SOBHD) “Worlds” from Cowal Highland Gathering.

It isn’t that the dancers and teachers and judges are unhappy with the event held at Cowal every August. Far from it, it seems every Cowal participant is complimentary as to the way Ronnie Cairns and his committee try to see to every need and eventuality of the dancing community. This column has received not one negative comment.
No, it seems the problem lays not with Cowal or the competition but with “where it is located”, Scotland. “The traditional home of Highland dancing”; “The traditional home of the Worlds” springs to the lips of those that defend the position that the “Worlds” remain right where they are! “Does our tradition and culture really mean so little to people? Scotland is the home of Highland Dancing and Cowal is the home of the World Championships and must remain so! writes one reader who summed up what the majority of those responding were saying to keep the “worlds” where it is.
The SOBHD were contacted for this article with regard to their thoughts on moving their “World Championship” but no response was received before print. However, Mr. Ronnie Cairns did respond on behalf of the dancing venue at Cowal Highland Gathering.

“You (Loraine Ritchey on behalf of Highland Dancing) have stated about rumblings that the World Championship should move around. Well what do I say to those, who think in this way? Of course they will say I am bias and yes I probably am. The one thing that upsets me most in life is the way in which many of our Scottish traditions have either been hijacked by others or cheapened or worse still; they have been lost forever. Cowal is more that just another Championship; it is part of the tradition of competitive Highland Dance. From as far back as 1932 when Gladys Bruce from Largs won the first Juvenile World Championship, through to 1948 when May Falconer won the first Adult World Championship to the reign of Colleen Rintamaki and to our current 2004Champions, they all have one thing in common they were allowed to have the experience of winning Highland Dances greatest prize on the Centre Boards at Cowal and only they can tell you what that means. We cannot deprive the dancers of the future that experience, to follow in the footsteps of all thereat champions of the past….. As long as we listen to the dancers we will not go wrong. Take the Worlds away from Cowal, if that day ever happened I would have failed in my role and it would then be time for me to stand down."

“Time to evolve!” cry the those that want to see a “traveling world championship”, not all the best dancers are able to make the overseas trip, the expense is out of reach of a great number of Highland dancers and their family. The adjudicating panel seemingly top heavy on the Scottish side. And then there are those that point out that the “worlds” is not truly a “worlds any more”. It is now totally a Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing Worlds.

The “traditional world championship” has evolved from 1932 -1969. The World Championship at Cowal Highland Gathering was an “open to the world’s dancers no matter their affiliated organization” and had independent judging.

In those years there were only two overseas “adult” champions. 1960 Flora Stuart Grubb, Australia and 1966 Sandra Wright New Zealand. The 1968-69 season found the SOBHD organization refusing to let its dancers dance at the“Worlds”. In fact in 1969 the SOBHD moved the “worlds” to Gourock, Scotland. However as Ronnie Cairns also stated “As far as I am concerned the World Championships have always been held at Cowal" a view shared by most in the Highland dancing world including the winner that year, Victor Wesley.

However Angus Mackenzie of Canada who participated at the SOBHD World Championships held in Gourock, the winner of Adult section claims his World title and the first Canadian to win. Mr. Mackenzie advertises his accomplishment as such in many games programs in his biography. Since the offices of the SOBHD are indeed aware of that fact and do not question Mr. Mackenzie’s claim to fame, they apparently support his World Championship title. However according to Cowal records the first Canadian winner would be in 1993 and the young lady from Ontario, Jacqueline Smith

After the 1969 boycott SOBHD got what it wanted, even though at the time the Cowal hierarchy in the article “Dancing Boycott” (Highlander Magazine) “" Under such circumstances no promoters of Highland Gatherings would be foolish enough to throw in their lot with one organization at the expense of the other In January 1968 the Board decided by 11 votes to 5 out of membership of approximately 37 and against the advice of Brigadier McLean the Chairman and other level headed members to boycott Cowal unless they obeyed all the rules laid down by the Board. "Some of the Board rules to say the least are ridiculous for instance "only Board Judges can be used in any championship…”

But change the Cowal Committee did, although they thought the rule of only Board judges being used ridiculous, they were swayed into accepting the rules and policies. . So in 1970 with a phasing in period the “ridiculous rule” of total SOBHD adjudicators came into being. The change of heart from the Cowal Committee in all likelihood came about due to the loss of overseas dancers from Canada and the USA as well a large portion of the Scottish contingency. The SOBHD organization held reign over whether those dancers could dance. And so in 1970 through 1994 Cowal and the “Worlds” although still an Open championship the dancers were now judged totally by SOBHD adjudicators.

1994 SOBHD through arrangements with Scottish Games Association, Canada, the USA and SOBHD affiliate members in agreement brought in a SOBHD worldwide registration scheme. Therefore the dancers that” now” perform on the Boards of Cowal are not the “traditional” open dancers from through out the world. No! " Tradition "was usurped once more as only dancers registered with SOBHD are allowed to dance and the “Worlds” has now evolved into a SOBHD World Championship held at Cowal.

A juvenile worlds was first held at Cowal in 1932 and the "open worlds" ran up to 1994; until it seems the loss of overseas and local dancers forced a change in the tradition, a moving of the SOBHD World Championship and a SOBHD registration scheme broke that tradition. SOBHD moved their “worlds” once; the precedent has been set, so goes the tone for the “tradition” debate.

Dancers from overseas and Scotland who are not registered with the SOBHD and are not allowed to compete at Cowal really don’t care whether it is moved or not. “ Why should we, we can’t dance there anyway” and “since it is closed to other dancers of the world we do not see it as a World Championship any longer, not for the past 10 years at least!” I would think it is just a championship for the SOBHD technique not a Highland dancing worlds so it doesn’t concern me whether it moves or not”. “ I am Scottish and can’t dance at what is claimed to be a Scottish “national championship” so no I don’t care what they do”.

Why the flurry of emails and letters sent to this column by dancers and parents and teachers and yes even some judges after last weeks 2004 Cowal wanting a traveling worlds when every single one was supportive of the competitive venue and dancing competitions held in conjunction with the Cowal Highland Gathering?

“Money makes the world go round!” (Jacques Brel is Alive and Well). Or the lack of it in the case of a SOBHD World Highland Dance Championship. The SOBHD have made great in roads in the past 20 years in the Highland Dancing communities worldwide. The prestigious Cowal “Worlds” became the yardstick by which every Highland dancer overseas measured their success in their art form/ sport. Every little beginner sees the Cowal trophy as the final success to be achieved. Every teacher would like to see one of his or her studio stand on the platform with that very special Cowal Cup.

As the number of Highland dancers in Canada, USA and Australia outdistanced the numbers in Scotland the number of those dancers wanting to attain a World title also increased. But along with the success of greater numbers overseas came also the frustration felt by those dancers and parent and studios as to the expenses incurred in competing for the title in Scotland.

The pro traveling worlds contingency argue “why should dancers from throughout the world be required to travel such long distances to one country to compete in the top level of their chosen sport/art each year?” Mothers and fathers wrote to this column with their accounting of how much they spend on Highland. “We have taken out a 2nd mortgage on our home so that my daughter can compete in Scotland this year”! “Our equity loan goes not on home improvements- but on dancing”! Others claim figures as high as $45,000 dollars spent in overseas travel over their dancers competitive years.

In the “Mothers and Others” article (Celtic World) some parents were spending upward of $10,000 yearly for the privilege of having a highland dancer in the family. “The luxury of traveling to Scotland as well as attending our national competitions is out of the question for the average family budget, it seems that not only does your dancer have to have talent to win a title but they also have to have wealth”; “I always thought highland was part of the “folk dance” yes the “rich folk”- maybe we could send our dancer once to Cowal but that would be it and I am told that unless you make a name for yourself on the circuit you probably wouldn’t come away with any prizes” so the financial frustration for parents bubbles over into “we can’t go to the mountain bring the mountain to us”

The expense of competitive Highland dancing doesn’t only weigh down the shoulders of the competitor, running a prestigious competition such as Cowal, also finds the organizers looking for financial relief in providing the dancers with the best playing field. Asked for comment on the various questions with regard to Cowal, Ronnie Cairns stated, “ Cowal is a Highland Gathering with eight different disciplines, each of who are looking for a fair slice of the financial cake. I have been fortunate in getting agreement from my fellow directors over the last few years to invest heavily in the Highland Dancing events, with the extra finance we have been able to make many improvements and more are planned for next year. This has taken a large chunk of the budget, but this investment required to run such prestigious championship”

Cowal has recently received support from two sponsors who have stepped up to the Highland dancing plate and Cowal is hoping for more to do likewise. “One of the things the Board of Directors of Cowal are in agreement, is that money raised in sponsorship through any dancing related organisation will be ring-fenced and used only for dancing. I am grateful of the support of the UKA, who have guaranteed funding for the Scottish National Championship over its first four years and another sum of money over the longer term for the whole event. I am also grateful to Tartantown who came to me this year with an offer of sponsorship for 2004 and future years. I would hope that other organisations within Highland Dancing would come forward now and offer sponsorship of some kind to further improve the event.” Stated Mr. Cairns.

To be continued: International panel of Judges and How overseas dancing organizations handle their situations; Cowal responds re the number of Scottish adjudicators.

As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at

Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.